Contract delays leave empty eateries at airport

The place where the food court is supposed to be on Concourse C at the Atlanta airport is a decorative wall.

On concourses A and B, some concessions locations have been empty since the end of 2014.

Hartsfield-Jackson International managers have spent the last year working on plans to put new restaurants in those spots and build out a new food court on Concourse C. But months of tangles in the contracting process have left them still vacant heading into the busy holiday travel season.

“We’re working through the process to open up these new locations as quickly as possible,” Hartsfield-Jackson spokesman Reese McCranie, though it’s likely to take until some time next year.

Even before the holiday crush, wait times for sit-down restaurants on the concourses can be as long as a half-hour during peak hours at an airport that handles more than 250,000 passengers a day.

Fast-food and quick-service concessions often have shorter waits, but lines at Starbucks and the most popular eateries sometimes snake onto the concourse.

Late last year, when the airport decided to rebid contracts for a handful of restaurant locations on Concourses A and B, Hartsfield-Jackson officials opted to keep the old concessions open through the holidays to serve passengers during the busy season. So Krystal, Checkers, Abica Coffee and A-Bar stayed open through the end of 2014.

But this year, as the holidays approach, those locations are still empty.

After being closed for more than 10 months, “it’s not like we can reopen them,” McCranie said.

And Concourse C remains the only full concourse without a large food court in the midsection near the escalators. Other restaurants on C – including a Longhorn Steakhouse, a Carrabba’s, a sushi restaurant called Umaizushi and quick service places like The Original El Taco, Five Guys and The Varsity – get crowded during busy periods.

Southwest Airlines shares the concourse with ExpressJet, a Delta Connection operator.

“While it’s true that the few full service restaurants in Concourse C may have waits of 30 minutes, there are plenty of other food choices” with minimal waits, Southwest spokesman Brad Hawkins said.

At some airports such as in New York and Minneapolis, airlines run their own terminals and manage concessions contracts. But in Atlanta, the city-owned airport is in charge of concessions.

Revenue still grows

The airport doesn’t expect to see any overall decline in concession revenue from having some locations empty, McCranie said. He downplayed any inconvenience for passengers.

“If you’re in a concourse that doesn’t have as many options as other concourses, you’re still going to find something to eat,” McCranie said. “Or, if you have the opportunity, you’ll go to another concourse.”

The airport started the contracting process for new concessions on Concourses A, B and C in January 2015, shortly after the A and B locations closed and as it prepared for an expanded Concourse C.

After some delays in due dates, proposals came in from concessionaires in March and April.

While a city contracting process can be completed in six months from start to finish, come July there was still no decision on the airport concessions. Felicia Moore, the city council’s transportation committee chair, asked for updates and was told the proposals were still under review by the city procurement department.

In August, the city disclosed it had decided to throw out the proposals and restart the process. The reason: too many companies had failed to properly fill out forms, particularly “E-Verify” immigration enforcement forms required by the state.

It echoed the snarls during a massive Atlanta airport concessions revamp back in 2011. The then-new state requirement for the E-Verify forms were also blamed when the city decided to cancel that process and start over again. In that instance, however, lawsuits and other challenges to the contracting process led to more delays that ultimately meant the airport’s gleaming new international terminal opened with only some of its restaurants ready.

State assistance?

In the weeks following this year’s cancellation, Moore asked a city procurement official during a council committee meeting about when the contracts would be rebid. He responded that the airport planned to seek assistance from the state to instruct companies on how to properly fill out eVerify forms.

New documents were released in late October, though at a pre-proposal meeting for concessionaires last week, there was no presentation by a state official. Instead, a city procurement officer and contract administrator explained how to fill out the forms. McCranie said the state gave the city training materials.

Barring any other problems, the new restaurants on Concourses A, B and C are now expected to open sometime in mid-2016.

Meanwhile, the concessions contract pains are compounded by airline moves.

After Southwest bought AirTran Airways in 2011 and inherited its gates on Concourses C and D, airport officials spent $47 million to create a giant, two-story dining mecca on D. It was completed in 2013.

But in 2014, Southwest moved to consolidate all of its flights on C, where the food court project is delayed and still underway.

McCranie noted that Concourse D has plenty of options, “just a few minutes away on the train.”

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